I am not a fan of assimilation theory. As a child of an immigrant family, I watched my father and grandparents systematically give up their identity as Italians to “fit” into American society. What was the cost? –a second language, knowledge of our relatives in Italy, and our cultural heritage.
I also do not think it necessary for anyone to give up their cultural heritage to be an American. Immigration is what makes America an interesting place–homogeneity is simply boring.
That is not to say, however, that I do not think it a good idea for recent arrivals to learn the basics of getting along in the U.S. These basic skills, the cultural capital that allows one to successfully maneuver the U.S. job market, schools, and health care system, is essential. Often, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a new immigrant to get access to the services s/he needs to get along. English classes are a good example here. Nearly everyone agrees (if for different reasons) that immigrants should learn to speak English. I think this is a good idea because speaking English also gives an immigrant access to better paying jobs, better educational opportunities, and will make life easier in general.
I do not think an immigrant needs to learn to speak English to “fit in,” however. This is the problem I have with the concept of assimilation and how it is used in popular discourse. When many people in the U.S. say “these immigrants need to learn English,” they typically mean that a person not speaking English makes them feel uncomfortable. I’m sure you’ve seen someone like this at one time or another, whether it was the man who screamed at the ATM machine for inquiring if he would like his transaction to proceed in English or Spanish, or the woman in Target who storms off in a huff because the person stocking shelves does fully understand her inquiry about the range of toss pillow colors offered by the store.
In both of the examples above, the American is affronted because they see a change in their world. I can only assume that they do not like change, they find it threatening, or perhaps they are simply abhor all things foreign.
Of course, learning English will help an immigrant fit in. The same is true of any American who is willing to offer their time and support to assist immigrants as they learn English and adapt to the U.S. We would all benefit if more people volunteered to become English tutors. Short of that, as a nation we should make the availability of English classes a priority.